UNGA week shows maternal and newborn health are central to development challenges

Amy Boldosser-Boesch is the Interim President and CEO at Family Care International. This article originally appeared on the Healthy Newborn Network (HNN) blog.  

CD cover 2This year’s UN General Assembly was full of high-profile moments that reinforced the need for investment and action to improve reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH): the launch of a Global Financing Facility to Advance Women’s and Children’s Health; the release of reports tracking stakeholders’ fulfillment of commitments to Every Woman Every Child; new data on maternal, newborn and child survival from Countdown to 2015; and a plethora of side events focusing on strategies and country progress toward MDGs 4 and 5. For Family Care International, which advocates for improved reproductive, maternal, and newborn health, this unprecedented level of attention to women’s and children’s health is a welcome sign that our advocacy is having an impact, and that global commitment to ending all preventable maternal and child deaths is stronger than ever.

RMNCH was a key theme in many other important discussions during the week, demonstrating the centrality of the health of mothers and newborns to a range of development challenges.

  • Events began with a Climate Summit that brought together leaders from more than 120 countries. The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health noted during the Summit that “women and children are the most vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate, and those who are more likely to suffer and die from problems such as diarrhoea, undernutrition, malaria, and from the harmful effects of extreme weather events such as floods or drought.”
  • There was a special session to review progress towards achieving the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action. The ICPD agenda highlights the importance of ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights and the importance of quality and accessible maternal health care, recognizing that healthy girls and women can choose to become healthy moms of healthy babies.
  • The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting where President Obama called for swift action on the Ebola epidemic that is destroying lives and decimating African health systems. This crisis highlights already-fragile health systems that lack sufficient health workers, supplies, and essential medicines–the same failures that contribute to maternal and newborn mortality. A recent news story details how pregnant women who are not infected with Ebola risk dying in West Africa due to lack of access to maternal health services, and the same risk exists for newborns and young children. The loss of skilled healthworkers, particularly midwives, could have enormous long term impacts on the ability of women, newborns and children to access life-saving care.
  • Finally, the UNGA week included high-level meetings on humanitarian crises in Syria, South Sudan and many other countries. According to the State of the World’s Mothers 2014 report, more than half of all maternal and child deaths occur in crisis-affected places. Discussions of humanitarian response in crisis settings included recognition of the disproportionate impact on women and children of violence, including gender-based violence, displacement, lack of access to food and lack of access to crucial maternal health services and early interventions for newborns. These crises and fragile health systems make achieving the Every Newborn Action Plan recommendations on ensuring quality care for mothers and newborns during labor, childbirth and the first week of life more difficult, but also more critical.

While this long list of world crisis may seem overwhelming, there is some good news on maternal, newborn and child survival. As the UN Secretary-General reminded us, the world is reducing deaths of children under the age of five faster than at any time in the past two decades and significant declines in maternal mortality have occurred in the past 10 years. As the world works together to shape the post-2015 development goals, these experiences during UNGA show that the new agenda must prioritize continuing to address maternal, newborn and child mortality which is linked to many of the world’s pressing development challenges, including poverty. As a recent editorial in The Lancet says, “As governments slowly come to an agreement about development priorities post-2015, it is clear that maternal and newborn health will be essential foundations of any vision for sustainable development between 2015 and 2030.”

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